Robert Yates was born on the 27th day of January, 1738, in the city of Schenectady, New York. At the age of sixteen he was sent by his parents to the city of New York, where he received a classical education, and afterward studied the law with William Livingston, Esq. a celebrated barrister in that metropolis. On the completion of his studies, he was admitted to the bar, and soon after fixed his residence in the city chancery. He soon became eminent in his profession, and on account of his incorruptible integrity, was known by the appellation of the Honest Lawyer. At the age of twenty-seven, he married Miss Jane Van Ness.
On the prospect of a rupture between this country and Great Britain, his open and avowed principles as a whig, brought him into political notice, and several well written essays, which were the productions of his pen, contributed, in no small degree, to establish his reputation as a writer, in defence of the rights and liberties of his country. He had already held a seat as a member of the corporation of the city of Albany, and as attorney and counsel to that board; and he was soon after appointed a member of the committee of public safety, a body of men who were invested with almost inquisitorial powers, and who had justly become the dread and scourge of that class of men called tories. By the exertions of Mr. Yates, the proceedings of that tribunal were tempered with moderation, and the patriotic zeal of the community, confined within its proper and legitimate sphere of action. Afterwards, he held a seat in the provincial congress of his own state, and, during the recess of that body, performing the complicated and arduous duties of chairman of a committee for the organization and direction of military operations against the common enemy.
In the year 1777, the constitution of New York was adopted, and Mr. Yates was an active and distinguished member of the convention that framed that instrument. During the same year he received, without solicitation, the appointment of a judge of the supreme court, at a time when an extensive and lucrative practice as a lawyer, held out to him strong inducements to decline its acceptance. Regardless, however, of private interest, he entered upon the duties of that office, rendered at the same time peculiarly delicate and dangerous. He sat upon the bench, as a writer has expressed it, "with a halter about his neck," exposed to punishment as a rebel, had our efforts for emancipation proved abortive: nor were these the least of his dangers. For in counties ravaged or possessed by the enemy, or by secret domestic foes watching every opportunity to ruin or betray their country, he was sometimes obliged to hold his courts.
He was particularly distinguished for his impartiality, in the trials of state criminals; and he was not unfrequently obliged to abate the intemperate zeal or ill-judged patriotism of the juries, who were to decide upon the fate of unfortunate prisoners. On one occasion, he sent a jury from the bar four times successively, to reconsider a verdict of conviction which-they had pronounced most unwarrantably against the accused, merely because they suspected he was a tory, though without any proof that could authorise the verdict;. As the accused had become very obnoxious to the great body of the whigs, the legislature were inflamed and seriously contemplated calling Judge Yates before them to answer for his conduct. But he was alike indifferent to censure or applause in the faithful and independent exercise of his judicial duties, and the legislature, at length, prudently dropped the affair. His salary during the war, was very small, and hardly sufficient for the support of himself and family. Indeed, before the scale of depreciation of continental money had been settled, he received one years' salary in that money, at its nominal value, the whole of which was just sufficient (as he humourously observed) "to purchase a pound of green tea for his wife."
He was often urged to unite with some of his friends in speculating on forfeited estates during the war, by which he might easily have enriched himself, and his connections, without censure or suspicion; and although such speculations were common, yet he would not consent to become wealthy upon the ruin of others. "No," said he, "I will sooner die a beggar than own a foot of land acquired by such means." In September, 1776, George Clinton, afterwards vice president of the United States, anxious to receive the co-operation of judge Yates, in certain measures, then deemed important and necessary, addressed him a letter, of which the following is an extract: "we have, at last, arrived at a most important crisis, which will either secure the independence of our country, or determine that she shall still remain in a state of vassalage to Great Britain. I know your sentiments on this subject, and I am extremely happy to find that they agree so exactly with mine. But as we are called upon to act as well as to think, your talents and exertions in the common cause cannot be spared."
After the conclusion of the revolutionary war, he was chosen, together with general Alexander Hamilton and chancellor John Lansing, Jr., to represent his native state in the Constitutional Convention that formed the Constitution of the United States; and to his labours in that convention we are indebted for the preservation of some of the most important debates that ever distinguished any age or country. He was also a member of the convention subsequently held in his native state, to whom that constitution was submitted for adoption and ratification. His political opinions were open and unreserved. He was opposed to a consolidated national government, and friendly to a confederation of the states, preserving their integrity and equality as such. Although the form of government eventually adopted, was not, in all its parts, agreeable to his views and wishes, still, in all his discussions, and especially in his judicial capacity, he deemed it a sacred duty to inculcate entire submission to, and reverence for, that constitution. In the first charge which he delivered to a grand jury, immediately after its adoption, he used the following language: "the proposed form of government for the union, has at length received the sanction of so many of the states, as to make it the supreme law of the land, and it is not, therefore, any longer a question whether or not its provisions are such as they ought to be, in all their different branches. We, as good citizens, are bound implicitly to obey them, for the united wisdom of America has sanctioned and confirmed the act, and it would be little short of treason against the republic to hesitate in our obedience and respect to the constitution of the United States of America. Let me, therefore, exhort you, gentlemen, not only in your capacity as grand jurors, but in your more durable and equally respectable character as citizens," to preserve inviolate this charter of our national rights and safety; a charter second only in dignity and importance to the declaration of our independence. We have escaped, it is true, by the blessing of divine Providence, from the tyranny of a foreign foe, but let us now be equally watchful in guarding against worse and far more dangerous enemies - domestic broils and intestine divisions."
Soon after this period he filled the important trust of commissioner, to treat with the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut, on the subject of territory, and to settle certain claims of his native state, against the state of Vermont. In 1790, he received the appointment of chief justice of the state of New York, and was twice supported for the office of governor, to which latter office he was, on one occasion, elected by a majority of votes: but, on account of some real or supposed inaccuracy iu some of the returns, he did not receive the certificate of his election.
In January, 1798, having completed his sixtieth year, and with it, the constitutional term of his office, he retired from the bench, of which for twenty-one years he had been its ornament and pride; and resumed the practice of the law. So highly did the legislature estimate his former services and usefulness, that it was proposed in that body to fix an annual allowance or stipend on Mm for life, and the proposition actually passed the senate, but was laid aside in the assembly, as being supposed to savour too much of the monarchical regulation called pensions. Determined, however, to provide for an old and faithful public servant, who had worn out his better days for the good of his country, the legislature appointed him a commissioner to settle disputed titles to lands in the military tract, and this appointment he held till nearly the close of his life, when the law creating it, ceased by its own limitation. On the 9th day of September, 1801, he finished his mortal career, "full of honours and full of years," placing a firm reliance on the merits of an atoning Saviour, and the goodness of a merciful God. He left a widow and four children, two of whom onjy are now living, a son and daughter; the former John V. N. Yates, Esquire, present secretary of state, of the state of New-York.
Chief Justice Yates died poor. He had always been indifferent to his own private interest, for his benevolent and patriotic feelings, could not be regulated nor restrained by the cold calculations of avarice or gain. No man was more esteemed than himself. He never had. it is believed, in thew hole course of his life, a personal enemy, and the tears of the widow, the orphan, the destitute and oppressed, followed him to his grave. He was emphatically the honest man and the upright judge. His talents were of the higher order, and his manners were plain, attractive and unassuming. His opinions at nisi prius, were seldom found to be incorrect, and on the bench of the supreme court he was distinguished for a clear, discriminating mind, that readily arrived at the true merits of the case before him. It may be safely affirmed, that no single individual ever filled so many high and responsible stations with greater credit to himself, and honour to the state. His memory will be cherished as long as virtue is esteemed and talents respected, and his epitaph is written in the hearts of his fellow-citizens, and in the history of his country.
- A Biography of Robert Yates 1738-1801
- A New American Biographical Dictionary; Or, Remembrancer of the Departed Heroes, Sages, and Statesmen of America